Spotlight Series: Indian-American infectious disease expert, Dr. Nahid Bhadelia of Massachusetts

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Dr. Nahid Bhadelia (Photo: Bumc.bu.edu)

February 9, 2020 now seems a generation away from today’s situation vis-a-vis the coronavirus pandemic. It was still “a public-health emergency of international concern” but had not been declared a pandemic yet by the World Health Organization. It was a public health emergency in China already.

That was the day when Nahid Bhadelia, an infectious disease physician and associate professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, made some prophecies writing in The Atlantic magazine  about what health authorities around the world faced in coming weeks.

“The 2019-nCoV epidemic could unfortunately result in a much greater number of cases (than Ebola), despite having a lower mortality rate, and may test aspects of public-health resilience in ways that Ebola didn’t,”

Today, Massachusetts, her state, is witnessing a massive public health crisis with more than 2,400 cases and 25 deaths, of which 10 happened within 24 hours March 27. Add to that not enough protective gear, going by Governor Charlie Baker’s pleas and frustrations in daily briefings.

On March 26, 2020, Bhadelia tweeted – “On Tuesday (two days ago), there were around 1150 cases of #covid19 in Massachusetts. Today, on Thursday, there are 2417 cases. #exponentialgrowth

On March 25, she pleaded on Twitter – “Have PPE? Have other equipment? Want to make donations of othr things to @The_BMC? We need your help! #COVID19.” BMC stands for Boston Medical Center.

Bhadelia, who was in the spotlight when Ebola was overcoming countries of West Africa where she worked in a number of countries, has today, along with other infectious disease experts, carried out an “extensive review of every bit of new information that’s emerged from the ongoing outbreak,” reported Boston University in early March.

In a “A COVID-19 Primer for the Boston University Community” showed the fatality rate was around 2.3 percent, and that 80-85 percent of people who are infected have just mild illness with cough and fever.

Medical students at Universities in Massachusetts, including Bhadelia’s Boston U, are being graduated early with medical degrees so they can join the fight against coronavirus in that state.

In a March 15, 2020 interview on WGBH Boston’s All Things Considered, Bhadelia cautioned people to observe the social distancing rule as hospitals struggled to deal with it.

Bhadelia is not a stranger to being in the midst of an epidemic. She headed to Africa to help fight Ebola  in August 2014 and again in 2015 in Sierra Leone, working with World Health Organization and partners In Health. Specializing in infection control issues related to emerging pathogens and highly communicable infectious diseases, Bhadelia has been a subject matter expert to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Defense, GlobalFund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the World Bank.

“With any newly emerging pathogen, we discover holes in our public health system,” Bhadelia said during the Ebola crisis, quoted in an article on the Tufts.edu website.

On a radio show ‘importantnotimportant’ episode 9, a fun show dealing with serious issues, the hosts described Dr. Bhadelia as “an exciting new iteration of a beloved action hero star.” as a “world traveler, a photographer, a professor and the Director of Infection Control and Medical Response at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory.”

“Okay, so she’s like a sort of smarter doctor version of Indiana Jones,” one of the hosts said.

When asked about her life story, Bhadelia revealed that her father is also a physician, and recounted that she was an American but grew up in several different countries till the age of 11, in the Middle East and then in Sweden, an upbringing that showed her how access to health differed depending where you lived. Her grandfather was a businessman, she said, who spent some time in a British jail, a social justice background that trickled down to her through her father influenced her thinking.

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